Monday, January 18, 2021

A Few Notes on Deflation/Inflation

The consensus is that asset inflation is unstoppable and forever. History begs to differ.

Not unsurprisingly, people want a binary option: do we get deflation or inflation? Unfortunately, reality is messy.

Broadly speaking, globalization is deflationary as capital seeks the lowest cost labor, parts and materials, the least stringent environmental standards and the most corrupt governance to maximize profits by any means available (in this case, exploitation and corruption).

Wages lose purchasing power as every labor force competes with the cheapest available pool of global labor, and domestic companies must lower prices or face obliteration by the global corporations.

Broadly speaking, financialization is inflationary as the costs of services increase as financialization enables monopolies and cartels to dominate entire sectors. Once they control the sector, they increase prices while lowering quality to maximize profits by any means available (in this case, monopoly, cartels and political corruption). As the profits gush in, corporate monopolies and cartels can "invest in corruption" by using a sliver of their profits to buy political favors and protection.

Financialization lowers the cost of credit to corporations and financiers, giving the largest entities an unmatchable competitive advantage: they can borrow immense sums at near-zero cost and use this money (or newly issued stock) to buy competitors, insuring their monopoly won't be challenged by either regulations (since politicos and bureaucrats have been bought off) or competitors (all bought out with "free money".)

While many hold that inflation is always a monetary phenomenon, real-world scarcities are also inflationary. If you were waiting in a long line at a gas station in 1973, hoping to get a tank of gas at only double the price of a month earlier, you'll know that scarcity is absolutely marvelous at sending price soaring regardless of what's happening with the money supply.

So inflation can be driven by either or both monetary and scarcity dynamics.

Enter the pandemic. Needless to say, restrictions in travel and gatherings are deflationary in travel-leisure-dining sectors as airlines lower prices to compete for a shrinking pool of passengers and surviving restaurants suppress prices to attract scarce customers.

As millions of workers lose their jobs and depend on unemployment, the insecurity of future income weighs on overall consumption.

Lowering the cost of credit does little for these sectors while rocket-boosting speculation and financialization. The monetary "solution" to deflation is always the same: lower interest rates to zero and flood the financial sector with unlimited liquidity. The resulting stock market bubble and corporate orgy of borrowing and stock issuance are predictable results of unfettered, near-infinite financialization.

But lowering the cost of credit and incentivizing monopolies and cartels to expand their control doesn't actually help the economy. Enabling rapacious monopolies and cartels is systemically inflationary, while lowering the cost and availability of credit also increases the attractiveness of automation as a means of lowering labor costs, a dynamic that is deflationary as lower wages equals lower consumption.

The reality is relatively few gig economy workers earn a middle-class income working 40 hours a week. The large-scale reduction of wage and benefit security--i.e. the transition to a precariat work force--is highly deflationary in terms of wages and consumption, as precariats cannot count on future earnings being reliable or sufficient.

The political "solution" is Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a means of supporting consumption. But supporting the consumption of essentials doesn't magically incentivize innovation or the expansion of capacity and real-world production.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve will continue giving unlimited "free money" to corporations and financiers to increase the concentration of financial and political power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. This fuels the dominance of corporations and financiers and increases the risks of monetary over-reach, which introduces the potential for a non-linear sudden and unpredictable explosion of monetary-driven inflation.

All of this sets the stage for both monetary and scarcity inflation. Monopolies and cartels are free to exploit their stranglehold on the nation by jacking up prices and reducing quality (while the bought-and-paid-for political class theatrically wrings their hands while skimming millions in campaign contributions). This is rabidly inflationary.

Since there are few incentives to expand real-world capacity and production, this sets the stage for scarcities in essentials and non-essentials alike. With Peak Globalization in the rearview mirror, the deflationary forces of globalization are ebbing.

The fly in the ointment is speculative bubbles always pop. All the inflation in the system has flowed into excessive speculation, which has inflated unprecedented bubbles across most asset classes. When these all pop, the results are deflationary as the wealth effect reverses and over-leveraged corporations default and/or go bankrupt.

I marked up this chart of the S&P 500 about a year ago, and since then the market crashed and then soared to new highs (SPX 3,826). The basic message here is extremes get more extreme until the rocket runs out of fuel--something the consensus now claims is "impossible." The consensus is that asset inflation is unstoppable and forever. History begs to differ.



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Recent Podcasts:

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My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


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A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Designed To Fail, Failure Guaranteed

Yet it still comes as a great surprise to everyone when 'doing more of what's failed spectacularly' ends up collapsing the whole rotten structure.

Systems and nations are designed to fail without anyone even noticing: nobody set out to design the current broken system to fail at critical points, but now failure can't be avoided because the incentive structure has locked in embedded processes that enrich self-serving cartels and insiders at the expense of the nation and its populace.

Nobody chose America's insanely perverse healthcare system--it arose from a set of initial conditions that generated perverse incentives to do more of what's failing and protect the processes that benefit cartels and insiders at the expense of everyone else.

In other words, the system that was intended to benefit all ends up benefiting the few at the expense of the many.

The same question can be asked of America's broken higher education system: would any sane person choose a system that enriches insiders by indenturing students via massive student loans (i.e. forcing them to become debt serfs)?

Students and their parents certainly wouldn't choose the current broken system, but the lenders reaping billions of dollars in profits would choose to keep it, and so would the under-assistant deans earning a cool $200K+ for "administering" some embedded process that has effectively nothing to do with actual learning.

The academic ronin a.k.a. adjuncts earning $35,000 a year (with little in the way of benefits or security) for doing much of the actual teaching wouldn't choose the current broken system, either.

Now that the embedded processes are generating profits and wages, everyone benefiting from these processes will fight to the death to retain and expand them, even if they threaten the system with financial collapse and harm the people who the system was intended to serve.

How many student loan lenders and assistant deans resign in disgust at the parasitic system that higher education has become? The number of insiders who refuse to participate any longer is signal noise, while the number who plod along, either denying their complicity in a parasitic system of debt servitude and largely worthless diplomas (i.e. the system is failing the students it is supposedly educating at enormous expense) or rationalizing it is legion.

If I was raking in $200,000 annually from a system I knew was parasitic and counter-productive, I would find reasons to keep my head down and just "do my job," too.

At some point, the embedded processes become so odious and burdensome that those actually providing the services start bailing out of the broken system. We're seeing this in the number of doctors and nurses who retire early or simply quit to do something less stressful and more rewarding.

These embedded processes strip away autonomy, equating compliance with effectiveness even as the processes become increasingly counter-productive and wasteful. The typical mortgage documents package is now a half-inch thick, a stack of legal disclaimers and stipulations that no home buyer actually understands (unless they happen to be a real estate attorney).

How much value is actually added by these ever-expanding embedded processes?

By the time the teacher, professor or doctor complies with the curriculum / "standards of care", there's little room left for actually doing their job. But behind the scenes, armies of well-paid administrators will fight to the death to keep the processes as they are, no matter how destructive to the system as a whole.

This is how systems and the nations that depend on them fail. Meds skyrocket in price, student loans top $1 trillion, F-35 fighter aircraft are double the initial cost estimates and so on, and the insider solutions are always the same: just borrow another trillion to keep the broken system afloat for another quarter.

Yet it still comes as a great surprise to everyone when doing more of what's failed spectacularly ends up collapsing the whole rotten structure.

Consider a spacecraft as a metaphor for a system which is designed not to fail but that can fail anyway. There are two basic ways the spacecraft can fail: a single essential component can fail, or a single failure can trigger a domino-like cascade which leads to the entire craft failing.

If the craft's single oxygen tank ruptures, the crew dies. 99% of the spacecraft is still working perfectly, but the system failed in its primary purpose: keeping the crew alive.

If an electrical failure causes a cascade of subsystem failures, you end up with the same result: a powerless craft and a dead crew.

But 99% of the system is working just fine is little solace to the expired crew.



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Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

Salon #35: The problem is that nobody knows what "Kuleana" means (58 minutes)


My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Is 2021 an Echo of 1641?

If you don't discern any of these dynamics in the present, what are you choosing not to see?

The reason why history rhymes is that humanity is still using Wetware 1.0 and so humans respond to scarcity, abundance and conflicts over them in the same manner.

I am struck by similarities between the conflict-torn mid-1600s and the present: global climate change (The Little Ice Age in the 1600s), political upheavals and wars which intertwined civil and imperial conflicts. Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century is a fascinating overview of this complex era which disrupted regimes and empires from England to China.

Climate change (The Little Ice Age) generated scarcities of grain in a time of burgeoning human populations. As in the present day, everyone assumed ample harvests would continue forever--expanding abundance is the New Normal. Alas, Nature is not a steady-state system and cycles are not tamed by our desire for ever-expanding abundance.

Humans respond to scarcity by assessing who's getting the biggest pieces of the shrinking pie. When hunger begets desperation, various dynamics are set into motion as those without agency and capital, i.e. political and financial power do whatever they can to get enough to survive while those holding the majority of political and financial power, jockey to maintain or expand their power.

These dynamics are fluid and prone to non-linear flows in which relatively small actions unleash enormous consequences that are not predictable. If we squint, however, we can discern some repeating patterns in this chaotic swirl:

1. Private owners of capital (i.e. elites) seek to influence the state to protect / expand their holdings.

2. The dispossessed / disenfranchised masses seek redress / succor from the state.

3. The geopolitical balance of power becomes increasingly precarious as competition for control of resources and political power heats up.

4. The state's resources are diminished by famine, decline of trade, etc. as pressures from geopolitical rivals, elites and the masses are spiking, reducing the state's ability to respond to the multiple challenges / overlapping crises.

5. The overlapping crises reveal and exploit the weaknesses in the political, social and economic structures, and in the competing elites.

6. Leaders concentrate centralized power in the hands of the few as a coping strategy by reducing the influence of broad-based councils, assemblies, etc. This concentration of power at the expense of the many (including lower-level elites who were accustomed to holding some consequential power) increases resistance of those being cut out of the decision-making and increases the odds of catastrophic errors of judgment in the few at the top.

7. As the state falters or divides into warring factions, the most powerful elites take control of resources and power from the state, both as a defensive measure and as a means of exploiting the crisis to their own advantage.

8. Populist leaders arise demanding a fairer distribution of resources and power. The more repressed the masses, the greater the disorder created by this emergence of long-silenced voices.

9. Each node seeking to defend or expand its share of resources and power projects and amplifies persuasive rhetoric, symbols and beliefs to unify its supporters around deeply held values and aspirations.

10. With so many loyalties in play--local, regional, linguistic, political, social, religious and economic--each node / faction seeks to decisively cement loyalties by establishing all-or-nothing hard lines via ideologically "pure" rhetoric that demonizes competing factions, effectively dividing the populace into us-and-them camps that leave little middle ground for compromise or negotiation.

11. In this fevered competition for loyalty and trustworthy followers willing to sacrifice for the faction, leaders view every advance as evidence that compromise is unnecessary as total victory awaits the next "win."

12. Given the grievous losses and potentially devastating consequences of competing factions gaining ground, the victors of each battle hasten to take revenge on the losing faction, laying waste and inflicting cruelties that harden the hearts of the surviving losers and inciting their own determination to exact a full measure of revenge when fortunes turn their way.

13. Only when the land, people and treasure are all exhausted does the promise of total victory fade, and the factions seek some negotiated settlement that leaves whatever power they still have intact lest they lose everything.

14. The eventual settlement could have been reached in the initial stages of disorder, but the leaders of the factions were too myopic, too confident in their own judgment and power, too greedy for more and too hubris-soaked to appreciate their own weaknesses and the immense pitfalls ahead.

If you don't discern any of these dynamics in the present, what are you choosing not to see?



If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

My new book is available! A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet 20% and 15% discounts (Kindle $7, print $17, audiobook now available $17.46)

Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

https://youtu.be/9XRUyTGcBVM Jay Taylor: The Fourth Estate's Role in Thrusting America into Fascism (27 minutes)


My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).



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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Five "Interesting" Financial Tidbits

Is that a red flashing light on the control panel of "the man behind the curtain"?

Among the many "interesting" (a safe word to use in perilous times) signs and portents swirling around us, here are five financial tidbits "of interest." What do they mean? The answer is of course nothing. There are many "interesting" things with no discernible meaning. Being "interesting" is enough.

1. Just like in 2000, proponents claim "this time it's different." Back then, the claim was that since the Internet would be growing for decades, dot-com stocks could go to the moon and beyond.

The claim the the Internet would continue growing was sound, but the prediction that this growth would drive stock valuations into a never-ending bubble was unsound.

Once again we hear reasonable-sounding claims being used to support predictions of a never-ending rise in stock valuations. Some observers find this "interesting."

2. Similarity in 2000/2021 stock charts. Technical analyst Sven Henrich posted charts of Cisco Systems in early 2000 and Tesla in early 2021: Clear and Present Danger. The similarity is, well, "interesting."

3. Similarity in 2000/2021 NASDAQ volume spikes. Technical analyst Tom McClellan posted a chart of NASDAQ volume in a ratio with New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) volume. Extreme Point for Nasdaq Volume. Notice the recent spike into dot-com era territory. Hmm, "interesting."

4. Financial assets as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) hit an all-time extreme. Note that in the "Glorious Thirty" postwar years (1946-1975) of broad-based prosperity, financial assets were around three times GDP. Now financial assets are over six time the GDP.

This ratio increased with every one of the three bubbles since the mid-1990s: the dot-com bubble in 1999-2000, the Global Financial Meltdown in 2008-09 and now the bubble of 2020-21. That financial assets are now six times the size of the "real economy" (GDP) is an "interesting" data point

5. Despite assurances that "this time it's different," all speculative bubbles pop because they are based in human emotions. We attempt to rationalize the bubble by invoking the real world, but bubbles are manifestations of human emotions and the feedback of being in a herd of social animals. I'm not sure if this even qualifies as "interesting" or not; perhaps it's too "obvious" to be "interesting."

Is that a red flashing light on the control panel of the man behind the curtain? Probably nothing, pay no attention....





If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

My new book is available! A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet 20% and 15% discounts (Kindle $7, print $17, audiobook now available $17.46)

Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

https://youtu.be/9XRUyTGcBVM Jay Taylor: The Fourth Estate's Role in Thrusting America into Fascism (27 minutes)


My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).



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Sunday, January 10, 2021

2021: If It Wasn't For Bad Luck, We Wouldn't Have No Luck At All

If we have indeed begun a sustained "reversal of fortune", it might be prudent to consider the possibility we're only in the first inning of a sustained run of back luck.

In our self-deluded hubris, we reckon we've moved beyond the influence of fortune, a.k.a. Lady Luck: our technologies are so powerful and our monetary policies so godlike that nothing as random as luck could ever crush our limitless expansion.

Thus does hubris beg for a comeuppance: the greater the hubris, the greater the reversal of fortune, the greater the confidence in our godlike powers, the greater the collapse of our prideful faith in technology and economic policies.

So we've enshrined our hubris-soaked happy story: the virus will naturally weaken, vaccines will conquer the Covid virus in short order, and by opening the monetary spigots and flooding the global economy with trillions in newly created currencies, we'll unleash the greatest boom in history, because it's so righteously "green."

We seem to have forgotten that to elicit a laugh, tell God your plans. We confused a sustained run of good fortune with godlike powers that are impervious to mere luck.

Unfortunately for all the true believers in our vaunted technology and human agencies, luck still matters, and after 50+ years of under-appreciated, fabulously good fortune, we're in the first at-bat of a sustained reversal of fortune, for as noted here many times, the way of the Tao is reversal: good luck doesn't last forever, nor is it some birthright of technologically advanced civilizations.

Are we ill-prepared for seven lean years of increasingly bad luck? Absolutely. Whatever technology can't resolve, trillions in newly issued currency will: either the magic of technology will work miracles, or the magic of limitless free money will work whatever miracles are left after technology wipes up the spot of bother.

If you wanted to script an unprecedented collapse of faith in the false gods of technology and money-printing, you'd outline exactly what transpired in 2020: a reckless dismissal of the pandemic followed by a monumental financial crash that opened the floodgates of free money, which triggered a massive "recovery" rally in risk assets, driving gamblers' confidence to new heights of fantasy.

All hail our new secular gods, the Federal Reserve, the most powerful force in the Universe!

Then you'd release miraculous vaccines that promised a permanent resolution to the pandemic and a measured return to the carefree pre-pandemic orgy of debt-based consumption. (Never mind the doubts of some experts about the vaccine protocols: Covid-19 Vaccine Protocols Reveal That Trials Are Designed To Succeed (Forbes.com) by William A. Haseltine)

Then you'd script the opening inning of the tragi-comedy unfolding in 2021: rather than fading as so many were pleased to confidently predict, the Covid virus has made remarkable gains in function, becoming more contagious and more elusive as multiple variants emerge globally.

Rather than conquering the virus, we're unable to even keep pace. The variant ravaging Britain was finally identified in late December, and subsequent sequencing of previously collected samples indicates that it emerged (or arrived) in September. In the meantime, this variant (and other mutations with similar characteristics) have spread around the world with business travelers, tourists, etc. One or more of these variants may reduce the efficacy of the much-hyped vaccines. It's all in this report from the New York Times:

As Coronavirus Mutates, the World Stumbles Again to Respond (New York Times)

Everything that was supposed to work smoothly due to our oh-so-advanced technological and administrative prowess in now either in doubt or in shambles. Consider the potential for less than 95% efficacy in the vaccines due to the interactions and mutually reinforcing dynamics of 1) vaccine hesitancy in those who understand the conventional processes of testing vaccines best, i.e. healthcare professionals; 2) the potential for consequential numbers of those who receive the first shot of vaccine failing to come back for the second shot due to unpleasant experiences after the first shot or other conditions such as being overworked, evicted, etc., and 3) variants further reducing the efficacy of the vaccines in unpredictable ways.

So let's say the efficacy drops from the promised 95% to 65%. Are you in the 2/3 camp who are protected by the vaccine from serious illness (though you may be a carrier and infect others, a possibility that was not tested by the trials protocols), or are you in the 1/3 camp who for whatever reason is no longer protected by the vaccine?

Since we're chasing a fast-mutating virus, there may not be a fast, accurate way to identify who's fully protected and who isn't. Since this may be unknowable, everyone will have to continue the behavioral methods of limiting exposure and transmission of the virus. In which case the vaccines will have accomplished very little in terms of returning the world to the pre-pandemic glory days of 2019.

If we have indeed begun a sustained reversal of fortune, it might be prudent to consider the possibility we're only in the first inning of a sustained run of back luck. We might want to consider learning a new theme song for 2021, Albert King's Born Under a Bad Sign (composed by Booker T. Jones and William Bell): "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all."

The cycles of human history are amenable to a reversal of fortune: please consider historian Peter Turchin's three indicators of systemic disorder: check, check and check.

Suppressing discussions about the potentially lavish banquet of consequences set by a reversal of fortune won't actually change the outcome of the next eight innings, it will only serve to increase the odds of catastrophically consequential decisions being made by those at the top of the hubris-heap.



If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

My new book is available! A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet 20% and 15% discounts (Kindle $7, print $17, audiobook now available $17.46)

Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

https://youtu.be/9XRUyTGcBVM Jay Taylor: The Fourth Estate's Role in Thrusting America into Fascism (27 minutes)


My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).



Become a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.




NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Gregory H. ($50), for another marvelously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

 

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